We’re seeing battle lines emerge in the college-football world, as concern over the growing power of the SEC and ESPN regarding the College Football Playoff is leading to an alliance between the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12.
The concern: the SEC is maneuvering to take control of the College Football Playoff after adding Oklahoma and Texas from the Big 12, proposing a 12-team playoff that could be looked at more like a SEC postseason tourney than as a true college football championship, with participants limited to the top six conferences. Under this scenario, a UCF or Boise State could be locked out of the proceedings even if the school had a tremendous year but the rest of the conference lagged. (This happened in 2017: UCF was locked out of the College Football Playoff despite compiling an undefeated season.) The SEC has enlisted Notre Dame in the effort as well, and with SEC all cozied up with ESPN, the concern is that the pair could exert an undue level of power in the college football world–and basically take control of the purse strings.
Not so fast, say 41 university presidents in the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12: we need a say in what happens with the College Football Playoff and maintain power over broadcast rights at a time when both the Big Ten and Pac-12 will be negotiating new conference broadcast deals (the Big Ten deal is up after the 2022 season, the Pac-12 after the 2023 season). The response: a new alliance between the three conferences covering much of the United States, including a scheduling component for football and women’s and men’s basketball designed to create new inter-conference games. The scheduling alliance will begin as soon as current contractual obligations expire.
Right now the alliance is more aspirational than having an immediate impact on college football, but athletic directors will be meeting to organize a framework and specific goals. For instance, there’s the chance the Big Ten and Pac-12 conference schedules would be trimmed to eight games, with one inter-alliance game added and one open spot left for traditional rivalries.
Yes, the announcement about the new alliance includes plenty of platitudes about the great academic standards of the 41 schools (and yes, any alliance that includes Duke, Northwestern and Stanford will indeed feature plenty of academic firepower), but make no mistake: this is a move to set up a defense against the SEC and ESPN, as exemplified by this quote reported on ESPN:
“It was a moment in time for three new commissioners to be able to come in and say, this has a chance to really be a volatile time,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said. “I think we all know, the history of expansion after one leads to another leads to another. Very rarely has there ever been a domino that’s fallen that hasn’t knocked over a few other subsequent membership changes.
“We had some friction amongst two of our really important conferences that make up the Power 5. And so, to try to get some stabilization to try to work through the next several years in a way where we collectively can work together is so critically important.”…
“I wouldn’t say this is a reaction to Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC,” [said Big Ten commissioner Kevin] Warren, “but I think to be totally candid, you have to evaluate what’s going on in the landscape of college athletics. … This is a year for seismic shifts, and I think it’s really important to make sure that you are aware of all these different things going on, and make sure that from our individual conferences that we do all we can to make sure we protect our conferences and build strong relationships to make sure that we protect our student-athletes.”
By deciding things as an alliance, the three conferences can hold considerable power over the structure of an expanded College Football Playoff and insist on a fair bidding system to compete against ESPN/ABC. Fox, CBS and NBC could be part of any bidding process process. But there alliances within the alliances–the ACC Network is a partnership between ESPN and the ACC–and Notre Dame may be forced to join the ACC if it becomes harder for an independent to participate in the College Football Playoff. The split between the Power Five–the alliance on one side, the SEC on the other, with the shrinking Big 12 diminished–may either strengthen the hand of the Group of 5 conferences: American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West Conference, and Sun Belt Conference. (Then again, the Group of 5 may not hold firm: UCF is a major university in a major media market, and a move to a power conference would fit right into athletic director Terry Mohajir master plan for the school.)
We don’t spend a lot of discussing the details of the College Football Playoff or broadcast deals, but this is an area that directly impacts our core coverage: football facilities. We’re in an arms race on the college-football stadium and training facilities front, as witnessed by a story we ran yesterday on UCF’s ambitious stadium plans. These are the kind of facilities expected from a major force in college football, one that raises the bar for every other college as well.